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The Trial Essay, Research Paper


by Franz Kafka

read by Geoffrey Howard

This disturbing and vastly influential novel has been interpreted on many levels of structure and symbol; but most commentators agree that the book explores the themes of guilt, anxiety, and moral impotency in the face of some ambiguous force.

Joseph K. is an employee in a bank, a man without particular qualities or abilities. He could be anyone, and in some ways he is everyone. His inconsequence makes doubly strange his ?arrest? by the officer of the court in the large city where K. lives. He tries in vain to discover how he has aroused the suspicion of the court. His honesty is conventional; his sins, with Elsa the waitress, are conventional; and he has no striking or dangerous ambitions. He can only ask questions, and receives no answers that clarify the strange world of courts and court functionaries in which he is compelled to wander.

The plight of Joseph K., consumed by guilt and condemned for a ?crime? he does not understand by a ?court? with which he cannot communicate, is a profound and disturbing image of man in the modern world. There are no formal charges, no procedures, and little information to guide the defendant. One of the most unsettling aspects of the novel is the continual juxtaposition of alternative hypotheses, multiple explanations, different interpretations of cause and effect, and the uncertainty it breeds. The whole rational structure of the world is undermined.

Is it not better to fall into the hands of a murderer than into the dreams of a lustful woman? — Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

The Trial


Chapter 1: The Arrest / Conversation with Frau Grubach / Then Fr?ulein B?rstner

Joseph K., our hero, wakes up the morning of his thirtieth birthday expecting his breakfast to be brought to him. What he gets instead are two warders, Franz and Willem, telling him he’s under arrest. He protests some, demanding to see their boss, at first thinking it must be a joke perpetrated on him by some people at the Bank, where he works as a chief clerk. He meets the Inspector, who says it’s for real but refuses to say why. The Inspector is seated in Fr?ulein B?rstner’s room next door, and K. sees three men he knows from the bank there, Rabensteiner, Kaminer, and Kullich, whom he greets angrily before hurrying off to work.

After he gets home from work that evening, he talks with his landlady, Frau Grubach. He apologizes for the ruckus and she says it’s all right, but that she doesn’t really understand this business of his arrest. He starts to go to his room and asks if Fr?ulein B?rstner is in, so he can apologize for the appropriation of her room. No, she isn’t, and he can see her room himself. Frau Grubach starts wondering about her nocturnal habits, as she’s seen her with young men around town at night, only to be interrupted by K., defending her from unwarranted aspersions on her character. She leaves, and he goes to bed, where he can’t sleep.

At about 11:30 Fr?ulein B?rstner, a typist, comes home and K. goes to talk to her. He tells her what happened that morning, but she doesn’t seem to be really interested, asking bored questions about it, as if to get rid of him. A knock on the door down the hall interrupts them, and Joseph apologizes profusely for taking up her time and makes as if to leave, but not before grabbing her and kissing her savagely. Then he goes back to his own room.

Chapter 2: First Interrogation

Joseph gets a call at work telling him to show up for a brief inquiry into his case on Sunday. He goes to the building mentioned that Sunday, only to find it’s just a big tenement house, with no distinguishing marks. After wandering through the building he at last is directed to the Court of Inquiry by a strange woman doing laundry. The Court is sitting in an overcrowded, stuffy room, with a platform and a big audience of important looking men. He gets berated for being late and is asked if he’s a house painter. K. takes this opportunity to address the audience (which answers with applause) about how much this court sucks, it can’t get its facts straight, this whole thing is a farce, a conspiracy? He is cut off by a man pressing the woman he saw outside the courtroom to him and shrieking. K. makes his way through the crowd and leaves.

Chapter 3: In the Empty Courtroom / The Student / The Offices

The next Sunday K. feels he should go back to the court, only to get there and finding nobody there but the woman he saw before. She apologizes for the disturbance, and blames it on Bertold, a law student who has been chasing her around, although she is the wife of the usher. K. examines the books left on the table, only to find that apparently the Examining Magistrate has a taste for erotica. He is interrupted by the woman, who starts to tell him about the Examining Magistrate and how he was writing a brief on K.’s case last week before coming in to look at her sleeping. He even gave her some stockings, look! And she shows them to him. Bertold has entered the room at some point and is hulking towards them. Nevertheless the woman insinuates that K. can have her, only to be interrupted by Bertold, who carries her off. K. chases them into the court offices but loses them.

The usher comes in and complains about Bertold chasing his wife (even though she throws herself at him) and how he would love to see him flattened. He tries to interest Joseph in this matter and they start walking through the labyrinthine, dark, stifling offices. Along the way they get to a hallway filled with men waiting for word on their cases. K. gets spooked and wants to leave, but he’s lost. He begins to feel faint and has to sit down, helped by a young woman and a man. He finally makes his way out, carried along by the man and young woman, badly shaken and not wanting to come back.

Chapter 4: Fr?ulein B?rstner’s Friend

(Editors’s note: In the new edition, this chapter is consigned to the Fragments section, so it goes straight from the empty courtroom to the whipper.)

Joseph wants to talk to Fr?ulein B?rstner again, but she hasn’t been around. One day he notices an awful racket coming from her room and finds out that her friend, Fr?ulein Montag, a sickly French teacher, is moving in with her. He talks to Frau Grubach about it, who says she’ll stop the noise if he wants but that yes, Fr?ulein B?rstner is indeed having Fr?ulein Montag move in with her. Joseph is upset over this turn of events, apparently started by his own behavior, and goes to see the room for himself, where he meets Fr?ulein Montag. She won’t tell him exactly why she’s moving in, and says that Fr?ulein B?rstner doesn’t want to talk to him. He goes back to his room, thinking about what all this might mean.

Chapter 5: The Whipper

K. is walking to his office in the Bank when he hears a horrible scream. He investigates and finds that Franz and Willem, the warders, are being whipped in a dark little storeroom. They plead with him to let them off, they have their own troubles, but the whipper is adamant about doing his duty. K. tries to buy him off, but no, that won’t do. Finally he tries to pull them out of the room but is foiled. For the next week he can’t get it out of his mind and goes back to look at the room, only to find everything as it was last week, with the whipper and the two warders there again. K. slams the door and yells for someone to clean out the closet.

Chapter 6: K.’s Uncle / Leni

K.’s uncle Karl (or Albert) visits him in his office. He has come in from the country, upset over his nephew’s case and wanting to help him. They go to see one of his uncle’s school friends, Dr. Huld, who is very sick but knows all about Joseph’s case. He has just been talking to the Chief Clerk, and the three of them begin talking. Meanwhile Joseph’s mind is on the nurse, a young woman called Leni. In the middle of the conversation he hears a crash, and goes to check it out, finding out that Leni just wanted to get him alone with her. She wants him to like her, she insists, but Joseph is more interested in his case. This painting of an important-looking judge, for instance. Will he be his judge? Oh, no, no, he’s just an examining magistrate, done up as if he were important. In fact, he’s just a midget. Leni advises him to confess and not be so unyielding. She wants to know all about his girlfriend Elsa, a waitress in a club, and he shows her a photograph. She is less than impressed, saying that she looks hard and wouldn’t he like to trade her for a better one? Does she have a defect, like Leni’s webbed hand? Joseph seems intrigued and kisses it, only to be hauled onto the floor by an exultant Leni.

Later she gives him a key so he can come back anytime he wants. He promptly bumps into his uncle who berates him for fooling around with what is obviously the lawyer’s mistress, and they leave.

Chapter 7: Lawyer / Manufacturer / Painter

K. is now totally obsessed over his case, which is now about six months along. He sometimes meets with Dr. Huld, who tells him that yes, he’s doing everything he can, but things have to go slowly. One needs to understand how things work, the lawyer tells him, and you definitely need someone who knows the ropes. Without that, your case is hopeless. K. can’t figure out what exactly the purpose of these speeches is, but he’s getting impatient. Nothing seems to be happening with his case, and he decides to do more himself, as the lawyer isn’t doing anything for him. At work, where he’s feeling increasingly threatened by the Assistant Manager, one of his clients, a manufacturer, knows about his case and tells him about the painter Titorelli, who might be able to help him. He even writes a letter K. can give the painter. He thinks it over and decides to go see him right away, even though the Assistant Manager is just dying for some reason to steal his clients (he thinks).

He finds the place where the painter lives, a ramshackle, stuffy, poorly-built apartment, surrounded by a bunch of young girls who want to know why K.’s here. Titorelli greets him and locks the door behind him, complaining about “these brats.” K. notices another painting of a judge. Who is he? Oh, he’s Justice, in the abstract. But in reality he’s just another low magistrate who’s had his picture painted like that. They’re very vain, these judges.

They begin to talk about his case, interrupted at times by the girls talking or asking if K. has left yet. I’m innocent, K. maintains. Good, says Titorelli. But the Court is not to be budged. It owns everything, like those girls out there. It is impervious to truth. What acquittal do you want? There’s actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and protraction. Actual acquittal is the best but can’t be influenced. Besides, I’ve never heard of one. Apparent acquittal I could help you with. I could write an affidavit swearing your innocence. But if you are acquitted, it isn’t final. This would be followed by the second arrest, the second trial and acquittal, and then the third arrest, and so on. Protraction is just where you keep your case at the lowest level of the Court. You don’t have to worry about sudden arrests or anything like that, but you do have to keep a constant eye on your case, since it still has to be kept going.

K. has heard quite enough of the Court’s machinations and gets up to leave. Titorelli convinces him to buy a few of his landscape paintings, and K. walks out the back door, only to find himself in the law offices again. He meets the people waiting on their cases again and finds an usher to lead him out. He goes back to the bank and hides the pictures in his desk.

Chapter 8: Block, the Tradesman / Dismissal of the Lawyer

K. has had enough of Dr. Huld’s crap. He decides to fire him and goes to his place to tell him that. Upon getting there at ten P.M. he sees a strange man with a half-naked Leni, who runs off in a hurry. He questions the man, who is Rudi Block, a grain merchant. He is also a client of the lawyer. They make their way to the kitchen, where Leni is making soup for the lawyer. He demands to know if they’re lovers, but she just tries to divert his attention by claiming to have more information about his case. K. is unimpressed and Leni leaves to give the lawyer his soup.

K. and Block get to talking, and Block says his case has been going on for five years. A secret?he has five other lawyers on his case, and it’s the only thing on his mind. He’s always at the offices, trying to see what’s going on with his case, and they have a weird superstition there: you can tell the way a man’s case will turn out by the shape of his lips. And poor Joseph is going to lose his case very soon by this reckoning.

Leni comes back and sees them talking. She tells K. the lawyer is waiting for him. Block lives here, she says. The lawyer is very unpredictable and you never know when he might want to see you. She shows them his room, a tiny little maid’s room. K., pressed for a secret in return by Block, tells him he is going to fire the lawyer. Block and Leni are flabbergasted and try to chase him. K. goes in to Huld, who tells him he knows all about Leni’s affairs with accused men. Accused men are attractive, you know. Even Block.

K. tells the lawyer that he’s had it with him. He’s done nothing for him. The lawyer insists that nothing much happens in any case, leading K. to insist they’re as much in the right as him. Huld says he takes only the cases that touch him closely. K. is unimpressed, so the lawyer brings in Block.

Huld says?actually yells?at Block that his case is in trouble, that it hasn’t even started, that the people at the court call it hopeless, but he’s still there to fight for him. Block demonstrates his gratefulness by getting on his knees and kissing his hand. K. gets the feeling he’s watching a staged performance of the lawyer and his dog, Block, and remains unmoved.

Chapter 9: In the Cathedral

An Italian, one of the bank’s biggest clients, comes to town and K. is asked to show him around. He especially wants to see the cathedral, where he’ll meet K. Joseph gets there and sees no Italian, but only the priest calling his name. He talks about K.’s case, saying it’s going badly. He’s guilty, after all, isn’t he? No, I’m innocent, says K., I just need more help. Like from women? Women have a lot of influence, says K. doggedly.

They start to walk around the cathedral, and the priest tells the parable “Before the Law.” The man from the country comes to the door seeking admittance to the Law, but the guard says he can’t come in now. There are plenty of other doors and guards, and he’s just the lowest, don’t you know? So the man sits and waits by the door for years on end, trying to find some way to get the guard to let him in, bribing him, pleading, begging the fleas in the guard’s coat to convince him to let him in. Finally, when the man is about to die, he asks why nobody else ever came to the door. This door was meant only for you, the guard says. And now I’m going to close it. They discuss it at some length. Is the doorkeeper subservient to the man? The other way around? Did the man come of his own free will? Is he deluded? It is not necessary to accept everything as true, only to accept it as necessary, says the priest. But, says K., then the world is based on lies.

K. decides to leave, since he has to go b ack to work. The priest tells him that he, the priest, also belongs to the Court, which wants nothing of him and allows him to leave whenever he wants.

Chapter 10: The End

On the evening before his thirty-first birthday, two men come to Joseph’s apartment and, their arms entwined with his on either side of him, begin to walk him through the city. Along the way he sees Fr?ulein B?rstner walking along in front of them. He watches her until she disappears into darkness. Finally they arrive at an abandoned quarry. They take off his coat and shirt and lie him down with a rock for a headrest. They take out a butcher knife and begin passing it to each other over him. He is apparently supposed to take it and plunge it into his own chest. But he doesn’t, instead looking over at a house across the way with a light on. Someone is standing at the window on the top floor, and Joseph wonders who it is. Where is the Judge, the High Court, that he couldn’t reach? He holds out his hands and spreads his fingers. Then one of the men takes the knife and stabs him, twisting the knife twice. “‘Like a dog!’ he said; it seemed as if the shame was to outlive him.”


On the Way to Elsa

Joseph is at the bank and gets a call telling him to come to court right away. Instead he decides to go and see Elsa, his girlfriend, a waitress. Will they punish him? No. Good. And he hangs up. He takes a cab to see her, thinking of his bank business.

Journey to His Mother

Although he hasn’t seen his mother, a half-blind old widow living in a small town, in three years, K. suddenly decides to go visit her one day at lunch. She’s been getting more pious, which kind of disgusts him. He tells K?hne, an attendant at the bank, what to do while he’s gone and while waiting for him to come back, thinks about the threatening Assistant Manager and the accursed Rabensteiner, Kaminer, and Kullich.

Prosecuting Counsel

K. becomes good friends with Hasterer, a lawyer. They frequently go to his house with some other friends and talk over dinner. Hasterer is a master speaker, taking on all comers without breaking a sweat. He has a woman named Helene living with him for a while, who at first stays in bed reading crappy novels but then starts to show up at dinner in a fantastically out of place old ballgown. Finally Hasterer gets bored of her and sends her packing. The Assistant Manager tells K. he knows about his friendship with Hasterer, which somewhat upsets K.

The House

K. tries to find out where the first notification of his case came from, and with Titorelli and Wolfart’s help finds it. It is, of course, a totally negligible office, existing only to rubber stamp anything the higher ups want done.

Titorelli and K. have become close, since K. is always bothering and consulting him about his case. Meanwhile K. is being worn out by his case, sometimes having nightmares about Frau Grubach’s other lodgers all pointing the finger at him and accusing him, and then him wandering around the offices meeting truly bizarre figures. Or perhaps he dreams about Titorelli, that they were sitting in front of a fire, K. begging him for something and Titorelli granting it, or them running around the law offices.

Conflict with the Assistant Manager

K. and the Assistant Manager aren’t getting along very well, since K. sees him as an usurper, just waiting to get K. fired and taking his place. The Assistant Manager must see that K. won’t go down without a fight, that he’s still alive and well. The Assistant Manager comes into Joseph’s office one day so Joseph can pitch his proposal for something, and the whole time the Assistant Manager is playing with a part of his desk with his penknife. He gets up and sits on it to fix it, breaking it instead.

A Fragment (what an inventive title!)

Joseph and his uncle come out of a theater into the pouring rain, and Joseph tries to think of some way to get him to go home so he won’t have to put him up for the night. He says that his uncle has been helpful, thanks, I have all the help I need, you can go home tomorrow, or tonight even.

Characters (in order of appearance)

Joseph K. (Josef K.) Our hero, he is awakened one morning and arrested for something, which he is never told. Over the course of a year, from his 30th to 31st birthdays, he tries to figure out why he is being accused and tries to fight the Court, but finally seems to just surrender to its power.

Anna The maid who was supposed to bring Joseph his breakfast, which was eaten by Willem.

Franz The warder who bursts into K.’s room and tells him he’s under arrest. He wants to get married, and is beaten up by the Whipper.

Willem The other warder who arrests K, he also is whipped despite his protests that he has a family to feed.

The Old Woman and Man Live across the street, seem almost morbidly interested in looking at K while he is in his apartment the morning of his arrest.

The Inspector Comes to the apartment to arrest K. K. tries to get out of him what all this is about, but to little avail.

Hasterer A prosecuting counsel. K. wants to call him as soon as he is arrested. In the fragment “Prosecuting Counsel” K is a very close friend of his, and they frequently go to his house, where he lives with a woman called Helene for a little while.

Frau Grubach K’s landlady, the owner of the building that K., Fr?ulein B?rstner, Fr?ulein Montag, and others live in. She is very fond of K. and tries her best to make him happy, even if she does think he’s guilty.

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